Yesterday, Vladimir Putin and I sat in the Kremlin Game Room and played a game of chess. We had some cognac, the fireplace radiated a pleasant heat, and the curtains were shut to keep out the chill of the evening. Vlad smoked his cigarettes. Since I cannot stand this smoke he turned on the ventilator. The strong air vent jostled his hair and shirt, and exposed his bare chest like he was hunting bears again.
“Don’t tell jokes about me,” Vlad said.
“Being joked about is the price of fame,” I replied. “I won’t tell jokes if you take black, though.”
“Of course I have white. I always have white. Don’t expect me to look at issues from another side.”
A normal game of chess requires silence. Vlad’s new rule is to speak up and distract the other. He instituted this rule after he kept losing from Gary Kasparov and since then indeed won. That man now is a wreck and the world hardly knows who Gary Kasparov is anymore.
“I begin. Now, what do women need to know about eating fish ?” Vlad asked.
“Huh ?” I was amazed and almost lost a pawn.
“Yes, my girlfriends keep on asking me. What do women need to know about eating fish ?” Vlad repeated. “It is terribly annoying. They seem to expect an answer but I cannot give it and they keep on bugging me.”
“Girlfriends ? As in plural ? I mean, all of them ?” I almost lost another pawn.
By then we had completed Vlad’s favourite opening scheme, that he called “the hesitant pawn strategy”. You have to hesitate in the proper order otherwise you lose pawns.
“Well, Alina comes along on State visits, Olga joins me on bear hunting, Natalya joins in scuba diving at archeological sites. In my new skying place in Sochi I have one girlfriend for going up and one for going down. Man, I am divorced and single again ! But they keep on asking what they need to know about eating fish ! My ex-wife never asked.”
I had to stare him down. Reluctantly he took one knight back, since he had moved both of them at the same time.
“Well, what I know about women is that they aren’t interested in money, muscles or good looks, but only in what other women think about the man they are dating. So it seems that your girlfriends are talking with each other.”
“Of course they are. I want a running conversation. Natalya must be able to pick up where I left Olga with, and Anastasiya where I left Natalya with, and so on. In my private life I don’t want the same idiocy as in the European Union, where nobody knows what has been said before.”
By now the game setting had become the following. NB: A hesitating pawn can also be retracted under Vlad’s rules.
“Still, you haven’t answered my question: What do women need to know about eating fish ?”
“Well, I suppose the same as men. Men don’t speak about it, though. This might make it seem mysterious, like if there is some secret about it. It shouldn’t be a secret however that you eat the meat and leave the head, bones and tail for the cat. I never thought about this. Do you think that women don’t know this, and that they always wonder whether they should eat the whole fish ? Or perhaps give the meat to the cat ?”
“That’s what I said, I don’t know !” Vlad said agitatedly. “Let us make things simple ! “Let us do like in the Ukraine. I have my troops behind the lines and we have only the pawns in the field.” He removed all major pieces from the board so that only the pawns were left.
“Now,” Vlad asked, “what is the strategy for these pawns to find the answer to the question ? Or how would their strategy be affected if we had that answer ?”
“So you want us to continue only with the pawns, and disregard the influence of the other major pieces, to find the answer to a question that you don’t understand why it is being asked ?”
I felt that my position had received a serious blow, and I was afraid that Vlad was instituting a new rule.
Gary Kasparov came in. With bland eyes he served us new warm glasses of cognac. He twitched a bit when he saw the board, but perhaps that was a general feature of him nowadays.
“It doesn’t have to be the right answer as long as my girlfriends think that the other girlfriends think that it is.” Vlad drew his cigarette and blew out his smoke with energy.
“Okay, but a chess game needs to have kings. Let us simplify further and replace some of those pawns by at least the kings.”
Vlad gruntled but agreed. He replaced some pieces, and eventually produced this setup. This is coincidently what the connoisseur will recognise as the Réti endgame. Apparently it is politically relevant for both the Ukraine and the fish question. One can get here when one understands that President Putin doesn’t quite play according to the normal rules.
“Okay, that looks like the Ukraine,” I agreed. “There are only some pawns and we can surmise that there have been quite some battles in the past. I don’t see yet how this setting is going to help us with the fish though.”
I was speaking plural. Vlad’s problem had become mine too.
We studied the situation like people have been doing since 1921. We delved deep into the cognac and didn’t notice the replenishment supplied by Gary Kasparov.
“Okay, I have found a suggestion, though you might not like it,” I hesitated, and understood how a Putin pawn might feel.
“I already know that I don’t like it,” Vlad retorted. “Fun are parades, fanfares, shows, gold medals, parties, celebrations. The only reason why I didn’t nuke Kiev is because Barack Obama asked me not to do so, and he said he would make it up to me. He owes me some. But I guess that the next president will not know this since they don’t speak with each other.”
“What would you think about a referendum in the Ukraine about what women need to know about eating fish ? It would be a democratic approach and lead to nowhere, though your girlfriends could be told that it does.”
Vlad was flabbergasted.
He would have lost the game if he hadn’t thrown all pieces from the board in joy.
“Ah, the power of democracy !” he yelled. “It always works but I never understand why, and I always forget !”